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The Construct State and the Book of Mormon: Evidence of an Ancient Hebraic Text?

The Construct State and the Book of Mormon: Evidence of an Ancient Hebraic Text?

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One of the types of Hebraism in the Book of Mormon that is commonly cited as evidence of its authenticity of ancient Israelite literature is the construct state. It is the first type of “the Biblical Hebrew features found in the Book of Mormon” listed by John Tvedtnes in his entry on the subject in a mainstream academic reference work.1 According to LDS scholar Donald Parry, “The overwhelming practice of preferring the construct state over the possessive and related forms is a strong indication of Hebraic writing.”2 In order to assess this argument, one must first have some basic understanding of what the construct state is and how it works.3

Understanding the Construct State

The construct state is a grammatical structure characteristic of ancient Semitic languages (not just Hebrew) of two nouns in which the second noun modifies the first noun; in other words, the second noun is descriptive in some way of the first noun. This is the reverse of how Indo-European languages such as English normally work; in English, the first noun usually modifies the second noun. Instead of saying gold ring, for example, a Hebrew would say something we might translate as ring of gold. (There is, however, no individual word in Hebrew corresponding to the English word of, a point to which we will return.) In this example, the second noun has in effect taken the place of an adjective. The second noun may also function as a possessive noun: son of Mary, meaning Mary’s son. What this example does not show is that in Hebrew the first noun, son, would be modified or formed differently, not the second noun, as in English. In other words, an interlinear translation would look something like son-of Mary, not son of-Mary

Note that the possessive is just one of many uses of the construct state in biblical Hebrew:4 

  • Agency (who did the action): stricken of [i.e., by] God (Isa. 53:4)
  • Origination (who created, spoke, wrote, etc.): word of the Lord (Jer. 1:2)
  • Instrument (what was used to do something): slain of [i.e., by] a sword (Isa. 22:2)
  • Temporal action (what will be done at a certain time): day of slaughter (Jer. 12:3)
  • Relationship (how one person is related to another): servant of the Lord (Josh. 12:6)
  • Possession (belonging to someone): house of the king (= the king’s house, 1 Kings 9:10)
  • Causation or source (what the subject causes): the Spirit of wisdom (Isa. 11:2)
  • Object (the one to whom the action is done): the oath of [i.e., to] the Lord (1 Kings 2:43)
  • Location (the place of the subject or action): Gibeah of [i.e., in] Benjamin (1 Sam. 13:2)
  • Adjectival (descriptive): possession of perpetuity (= perpetual possession, Gen. 17:8)
  • Idiomatic (colorfully descriptive): son of virtue (= worthy man, 1 Kings 1:52)
  • Substance (composition): vessels of silver (1 Kings 10:25)
  • Content (what is placed inside): skin of wine (1 Sam. 16:20)
  • Topic (what a speech or text is about): oracle of [i.e., about] Babylon (Isa. 13:1)
  • Specification (narrowed description): workers of [i.e., in] wood (2 Sam. 5:11)
  • Naming (proper name something has): river of Euphrates (=River Euphrates, Gen. 15:18)
  • Superlative (best of its kind): song of songs (Song of Sol. 1:1)

This is not even a complete list of the uses of the construct state in biblical Hebrew. It is sufficient, however, to demonstrate certain facts about the construct state of relevance to the question of the Hebraic character of the Book of Mormon.

General Observations about the Construct State and the Book of Mormon

First, the construct state is a grammatical feature that appears pervasively in genuinely Semitic texts such as the Hebrew Old Testament. A wooden translation of an ancient Semitic text of the length of the Book of Mormon that rendered the construct state in a uniform fashion would contain a huge number of examples. To give some idea of the number, consider that there are some 74 instances of the construct state in the first chapter of Genesis alone. Psalm 23 has 19 instances of the construct state in just six short verses. It seems reasonable to estimate conservatively that if the Book of Mormon (which contains 6,607 verses) were based on a Semitic original, that original would have contained 15,000 or more instances of the construct state.

Second, since there is no word meaning “of” in Hebrew, the assumption that a translation that uses the word “of” is a more literal translation of the text is flat wrong. For example, the translations “the word of God” and “God’s word” are equally literal translations of the Hebrew debar hā’ēlōhîm (דבר האלהים). The first, “word of God,” more closely represents the Hebrew word order, but the second, “God’s word,” more closely gives a one-word equivalent for each Hebrew word (since there is no word corresponding to of in the Hebrew text). By the way, neither translation is completely “literal” since in English we generally do not translate the article ha– in this expression; that is, we don’t usually translate debar hā’ēlōhîm as “word of the God.” In a way, the translation “God’s word” is again slightly closer to a word-for-word representation of the Hebrew, since there is no article in front of debar (“word,” not “the word”). This has nothing to do with one translation being right and the other being wrong; English is different from Hebrew and a word-for-word rendering of the text is neither achievable (in an actual translation) nor desirable. In short, the translation “God’s word” represents the words debar hā’ēlōhîm, in which debar happens to be a Hebrew construct state noun, just as accurately as does the translation “the word of God.”

To put the matter in another, more pointed way, Parry’s reference to the Book of Mormon “preferring the construct state over the possessive and related forms” is fallacious because there is no “construct state” in English. English can express the possessive in more than one way, and phrases using the possessive form of a noun (ending with an apostrophe and the letter s) are equally correct ways of rendering an expression using the construct state in Hebrew, if its meaning in context is possessive. The expressions the word of God, the house of the king, and so on, do not use the construct state; they express, by using a prepositional phrase, the same idea as some construct-state expressions in Hebrew. The word of God is no more a construct-state expression than is God’s word.

Third, “English uses ‘of’ constructions less often than Hebrew uses the construct, so translating every construct relationship with ‘of’ would sound peculiar to an English speaker.”5 For example, we would not expect to find the wording river of Euphrates or slain of a sword in a good English translation of a Semitic text. This is one reason why claiming that expressions using of are evidence of a Semitic original that has been translated “literally” is something of a mistake. Ironically, there are plenty of places in the Book of Mormon that do not use the word of and in which a Semitic original, had it existed, might well have used the construct state. For example, the phrase by the sword, which occurs 33 times in the Book of Mormon, would be translated into biblical Hebrew using the construct state (whereas the Book of Mormon uses of the sword only once).

Fourth, not every English construction using the word of can be regarded as a translation of an ancient Semitic word in the construct state. For example, no phrase that starts with because of (which occurs 560 times in the Book of Mormon) or out of (366 times in the Book of Mormon) would qualify as a likely translation of a construct state expression. Easily over a thousand occurrences of the word of in the Book of Mormon have nothing to do with a construct state, and it might be twice that number or even more.

The Word “of” in the King James Bible and in the Book of Mormon

All this having been said, there are indeed many phrases in the Book of Mormon that would work as translations of a Semitic text using the construct state. Any attempt to count (let alone catalog) all of them would be extremely time-consuming and tedious, but there are easily thousands of such instances (though not anywhere near 15,000). There are about 11,800 occurrences of the word of in the Book of Mormon, of which probably 10,000 or less are plausible candidates for representing expressions that in Hebrew would use the construct state. The question is whether this stylistic feature of the Book of Mormon is evidence of an underlying Semitic original text that has been literally translated.

If the use of expressions with the word of in the Book of Mormon were indeed evidence of an underlying Hebraic original text that was being woodenly translated, one would expect that the Book of Mormon would make a seemingly excessive use of the word of. Somewhat surprisingly, this is not the case. The word of actually has a slightly higher frequency in the Old Testament (KJV) than in the Book of Mormon: of is 1 out of every 21.7 words in the Old Testament and 1 out of every 22.8 words in the Book of Mormon.6 Note that an undetermined but fairly high number of the occurrences of the word of in both books are not used to represent a construct state expression, making any definitive comparisons here elusive. Nevertheless, this statistic is suggestive that the Book of Mormon may not prefer constructions with of to express what in Hebrew would involve a construct-state noun any more frequently than the KJV.

Of the Lord and of God

Of the roughly 10,000 or less occurrences of the word of in the Book of Mormon that are plausible candidates for representing Hebrew construct-state expressions, more than one in ten use the phrases “of the Lord” (485) or “of God” (729). LDS scholars have long pointed to these numerous occurrences as evidence of the Hebraic character of the Book of Mormon. Over a century ago, Thomas Brookbank set forth the argument:

…we find the form Lord’s but twice in the entire Book of Mormon, while the equivalent of the construct state of nouns using his name occurs about three hundred times in a possessive sense in expressions such as “commandments of the Lord,” “name of the Lord,” “people of the Lord,” “presence of the Lord,” “promises of the Lord,” etc., etc.... When we come to consider the name “God” in this same relation, the facts are still more noticeable. In a possessive sense it is used more than four hundred and fifty times, but only twice as “God’s.”7

There are indeed a large number of these phrases of the Lord and of God in the Book of Mormon. However, these phrases would obviously be familiar to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the Bible: in the KJV, of the Lord occurs 1,607 times and of God 985 times. No one seeking to produce a text in imitation of the Bible would have any trouble coming up with these phrases; no knowledge of Semitic languages would be necessary, nor would divine inspiration be needed to explain their use in such a text. Any uninspired writer familiar with the KJV would also know that it rarely uses forms of these titles with an apostrophe: the word Lord’s appears 109 times in the Old Testament (OT)8 and 14 times in the New Testament (NT), while God’s appears only 26 times in the whole Bible.

Not only are the phrases of the Lord and of God found throughout the Bible, but most of the whole expressions in the Book of Mormon that use these phrases are also found in the KJV Bible. These include the expressions word of God, word of the Lord, commandment(s) of God, commandment(s) of the Lord, Spirit of the Lord, Spirit of God, voice of the Lord, hand of the Lord, angel of the Lord, name of the Lord, and fear of the Lord, all of which occur more than 25 times each in the KJV and would be familiar to anyone who had read the Bible.

Moreover, there is evidence to show that the author of the Book of Mormon drew these expressions from his general familiarity with the KJV Bible. In some instances, the Book of Mormon makes frequent use of specific expressions found only in the NT, notably kingdom of God (38 times in the Book of Mormon, 69 times in the NT), power of God (56 times in the Book of Mormon, 14 times in the NT), commandment(s) of God (68 times in the Book of Mormon, 9 times in the NT), and love of God (9 times in the Book of Mormon, 13 times in the NT). These NT expressions are used in the Book of Mormon, supposedly by authors who never saw the NT. The reason these expressions do not show up in the OT is that OT authors, if they used equivalent expressions at all, used the divine name YHWH (Jehovah), which the KJV translated as “Lord.” Thus, in the OT we find commandment(s) of the Lord (60 times), kingdom of the Lord (2 times), and love of the Lord (1 time). The NT authors wrote centuries later, at a time when it had become common practice among Jews to use God as their most common title for the Creator. Even those expressions using God that are in the OT are much less common than the equivalent expressions using Lord. For example, word of God occurs only 4 times in the OT but word of the Lord 245 times; Spirit of God occurs 14 times in the OT but Spirit of the Lord 26 times.

Potential Examples of Adjectival and Similar Uses of the Construct State

The examples of “construct-state” expressions in the Book of Mormon most commonly cited by LDS scholars are expressions that are generally less familiar to people than the above biblical expressions. Typically these are examples that can be generally described as adjectival, in some instances specifically expressing substance or composition. Perhaps the two most commonly cited examples, both of which express substance, are the expressions plates of brass (never brass plates) and rod of iron (never iron rod). Again, it must be emphasized that “brass plates” would be just as literal a translation of the equivalent Semitic expression as “plates of brass”; one is not more literal than the other.

The expression rod of iron is an important expression found in Psalm 2:9, a messianic text that looks forward to the reign of Jesus Christ, and used three times in the Book of Revelation (Rev. 2:27; 12:5; 19:15). There is every reason to believe that the author of 1 Nephi, where all eight occurrences of this expression appear in the Book of Mormon (1 Ne. 8:19, 20, 24 [twice], 30 [twice]; 11:25; 15:23), found it in the Book of Revelation. We know this because 1 Nephi contains several other clear allusions to Revelation in the same section as the references to the rod of iron (1 Ne. 8:13, cf. Rev. 22:1-2; 1 Ne. 11:1, cf. Rev. 21:1; 1 Ne. 13:1, 6-7, 34, cf. Rev. 17:1, 4-6a; 18:12).

The expression plates of brass, occurring 27 times in the Book of Mormon, is found only once in a text that contextually has nothing to do with its use in the Book of Mormon (1 Kings 7:30). This makes it a plausible example of the Book of Mormon using a specific expression that Joseph Smith was not likely to have learned directly from the Bible. However, that a brass object would be described in the KJV idiom as “of brass” is something Joseph might well have known, since the phrase of brass occurs 66 times in the KJV Bible including, most famously, 22 times in the detailed descriptions of the tabernacle in Exodus 25-40. Joseph is likely also to have known that the KJV consistently uses of gold in describing objects made of gold (159 times, including 42 times in Exodus 25-40), an expression the Book of Mormon uses 22 times.

The table below lists some of the examples cited by Mormon scholars of “construct state” expressions in the Book of Mormon (other than those using of the Lord and of God), showing that these also occur in the KJV Bible. Again, it is totally unnecessary to the argument here to claim (much less prove) that Joseph Smith was familiar with each and every one of these specific expressions in their occurrences in the KJV. In several instances he probably was (rod of iron from Revelation; vapour of smoke9 from Acts 2:19; land of promise from Hebrews 11:9; certainly all ye workers of iniquity from Luke 13:27); in other instances we do not have sufficient basis for claiming that he was likely to have been familiar with them, although he may have been. What these examples show is that Joseph clearly learned this way of speaking in English from the KJV, and in several, perhaps many, instances got the specific expressions from the KJV. 

“Construct State” Expression Book of Mormon King James Version
altar of stones 1 Ne. 2:7 Deut. 27:5; Exod. 20:25 (of stone)
furnace of fire Mosiah 12:10 Matt. 13:42, 50
land of promise 22x Heb. 11:9
a man of great stature Ether 14:10 2 Sam. 21:20; 1 Chron. 11:23; 20:6
mist of darkness 1 Ne. 8:23 [twice], 24; 12:4 2 Peter 2:17
plates of brass 27x 1 Kings 7:30
rod of iron 1 Ne. 8:19, 20, 24 [twice], 30 [twice]; 11:25; 15:23 Ps. 2:9; Rev. 2:27; 12:5; 19:15
vapor of darkness/ smoke 1 Ne. 2:5; 19:11; 22:18; 3 Ne. 8:20; 10:13 vapour of smoke, Acts 2:19
words of soberness Jacob 6:5 Acts 26:25 (words of truth and soberness)
word of truth Alma 38:9 Ps. 119:43; 2 Cor. 6:7; Eph. 1:13; 2 Tim. 2:15; James 1:18
work(s) of darkness 15x Rom. 13:12; Eph. 5:11
works of righteousness Alma 5:16, 35, 36 Titus 3:5; Isa. 32:17 (work of)
workers of iniquity Alma 5:32 (all ye workers of iniquity), 37 21x, especially all ye workers of iniquity, Luke 13:27 (=Ps. 6:8)

Lack of Consistency in “Translation”

The LDS claim we are examining is that the presence of such expressions as rod of iron and plates of brass in the Book of Mormon is evidence that it had been translated very literally from a Hebraic text using nouns in the construct state. This claim presupposes the traditional Mormon understanding that the translation was not really done by Joseph Smith but was rather received by him essentially word for word in a process of supernatural revelation. If the argument is sound, then the Book of Mormon should be consistent in rendering the supposed construct-state expressions in the same way. However, this is not the case. For example, although the Book of Mormon does use the expression land of promise 22 times, it uses the expression promised land 21 times.10

The following table lists examples of so-called “construct state” expressions in the Book of Mormon for which there are also more idiomatic English equivalents found in the Book of Mormon. In the far right column, it also lists similar examples from the Book of Mormon. 

“Construct State” Expression “Literal” References Equivalent Forms Similar Expressions
furnace of fire Mosiah 12:10 fiery furnace, Mormon 8:24  
doings of abominations 2 Ne. 25:2   evil doings (not doings of evil), Mosiah 11:29; 12:1; 3 Ne. 30:2; Mormon 2:8
land of promise 22 times promised land, 21 times  
a man of great stature Ether 14:10 man large in stature, 1 Ne. 4:31 a large and a strong man, Alma 46:3 (similarly Hel. 1:15; Ether 1:34)
night of darkness Alma 34:33; 41:7 dark night, Moroni 7:15 (cf. Prov. 7:9)  
plates of brass 27 times    brazen serpent, Hel. 8:14
plates of gold Mosiah 28:11   golden city, 2 Ne. 24:4; see also 2 Ne. 23:12
rod of iron 1 Ne. 8:19, 20, 24 [twice], 30 [twice]; 11:25; 15:23   iron sinew, 1 Ne. 20:4
skin of blackness 2 Ne. 5:21   white robe (1 Ne. 8:5; 14:19; 3 Ne. 11:8), not robe of whiteness
sword of Laban 2 Ne. 5:14; Jacob 1:10; Words 1:13; Mosiah 1:16   flaming sword (not sword of flame), Alma 12:21; 42:2, 3
temple of Solomon 2 Ne. 5:16 [twice] Solomon’s temple in the same verse  
words of plainness Jacob 4:14   plainness of speech, 2 Cor. 3:12; plain and precious things, 1 Ne. 13:28, 29 [twice], 40; plain road, 2 Ne. 4:32; plain terms, Alma 13:23
work of wickedness Hel. 11:2   evil works, Alma 5:41; 40:13

The point here is not that (for example) furnace of fire is “right” and fiery furnace is “wrong,” or even that the former is “Hebraic” and the latter is not. As has been emphasized here repeatedly, these are both English ways of wording the same idea that in Hebrew is commonly expressed using the construct state. In some instances, particularly the “adjectival” uses, one wording is more idiomatic in English (e.g., fiery furnace) and the other not. In other instances, both wordings are equally familiar in English (e.g., Solomon’s temple and temple of Solomon are roughly equal in English usage11). In some of these instances, the expression using of has become a stock phrase in English due to its use in the KJV Bible. This is certainly true for the expression rod of iron, which has become a stock expression from its use in the KJV.12

In any case, the inconsistency of the Book of Mormon in using both kinds of expressions—furnace of fire and fiery furnace, night of darkness and dark night, and so on—undermines the claim that its use of one type of expression is evidence that the text was translated from a Hebraic original.

Using the “Construct State” Construction in a Non-Hebraic Way

Although most of the expressions using of in the Book of Mormon are either paralleled in the Bible or consistent with biblical idiom, in some instances its usage is very much contrary to biblical usage. A prime example of such a mistake is the expression temple of Solomon, mentioned above. This expression is a very familiar one in modern usage, but it is contrary to the way ancient Israelites and their contemporaries spoke about temples. This construction, with a personal name, was used in ancient idiom to identify the deity to whom the temple was dedicated, not to identify its builder. In the Old Testament, the usual such expression is temple of the LORD (i.e., temple of Yahweh).13

Possessive Expressions Using Apostrophe

The fact that the expressions temple of Solomon and Solomon’s temple occur in the very same verse (2 Ne. 5:16) is an excellent example of the inconsistency in the way possessives are handled in the Book of Mormon. A closer look at this aspect of the issue is in order.

On the one hand, it is certainly true that the Book of Mormon forms possessives using an apostrophe far less often than is customary in English, even far less often than in the KJV Bible.14 By my count, there are 1,642 occurrences of words formed with an apostrophe in the Old Testament (KJV) and only 87 in the Book of Mormon.15 To put these figures proportionately, about 1 in 379 words in the Old Testament has an apostrophe while about 1 in 3,089 words has an apostrophe. Thus, words with an apostrophe are about eight times more frequent in the KJV than in the Book of Mormon.

On the other hand, the Book of Mormon does use words with an apostrophe 87 times. These cannot be explained as spelling mistakes by the scribes; for example, Solomon’s temple is not a spelling mistake for temple of Solomon. Nor are these typographical errors by the typesetter, a fact that can be confirmed by checking the original manuscript (O) or the printer’s manuscript (P) of the Book of Mormon that were produced by hand by Joseph Smith’s scribes (mostly Oliver Cowdery). If there were only a handful of words with an apostrophe in the Book of Mormon (certainly less than ten), one might be able to hypothesize that the scribe simply made a mistake and inadvertently wrote down something different from what Joseph had dictated. However, there are simply too many occurrences for them to be explained in this way. This means that the words forming the possessive with an apostrophe must, at least generally speaking, have been the words that Joseph dictated. This conclusion raises an obvious question: if the Book of Mormon rarely forms the possessive using words with an apostrophe because it is an inspired translation of a Hebraic original, with the translation being revealed to Joseph word for word, why are these 87 possessive forms with an apostrophe in the Book of Mormon?

We can immediately account for 25 of the 87 occurrences because they occur in passages that are quoted from the Bible. In the table below, Book of Mormon passages that quote the Old Testament along with those that parallel the Sermon on the Mount are shown where the Book of Mormon uses words formed as possessives using an apostrophe. 

Book of Mormon KJV Bible Text [with Book of Mormon Differences in Brackets]
1 Ne. 20:9 Isa. 48:9 For my name’s sake will I defer mine anger….
2 Ne. 7:1a Isa. 50:1a Thus saith the LORD, Where is the bill of your mother’s divorcement….
2 Ne. 12:2 Isa. 2:2 And it shall come to pass in the last days, that [“when”] the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established….
2 Ne. 17:3 Isa. 7:3 …at the end of the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller’s field.
2 Ne. 17:9a Isa. 7:9a And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is Remaliah’s son.
2 Ne. 17:17 Isa. 7:17 The LORD shall bring upon thee, and upon thy people, and upon thy father’s house, days that have not come….
2 Ne. 18:1 Isa. 8:1 Take thee a great roll, and write in it with a man’s pen….
2 Ne. 18:6 Isa. 8:6 Forasmuch as this people refuseth the waters of Shiloah that go softly, and rejoice in Rezin and Remaliah’s son.
2 Ne. 21:8 Isa. 11:8 And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’[s] den.
2 Ne. 23:7 Isa. 13:7 Therefore shall all hands be faint, and every man’s heart shall melt.
2 Ne. 23:19 Isa. 13:19 And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldees’ excellency….
2 Ne. 24:29 Isa. 14:29 …for out of the serpent’s root shall come forth a cockatrice, and his fruit shall be a fiery flying serpent.
2 Ne. 27:27a Isa. 29:16a Surely your turning of things upside down shall be esteemed as the potter’s clay….
2 Ne. 30:14 Isa. 11:8 And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’[s] den.
Mosiah 13:24 Exod. 20:17 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house,
thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife,
nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass,
nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.
3 Ne. 12:10 Matt. 5:10 [And] Blessed are [all] they which are persecuted for [my] righteousness’ [name]sake…
3 Ne. 12:34 Matt. 5:34 But [verily, verily,] I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne….
3 Ne. 14:3 Matt. 7:3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
3 Ne. 14:5 Matt. 7:5 …and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.
3 Ne. 14:15 Matt. 7:15 Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.
3 Ne. 24:2 Mal. 3:2 …for he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ [fuller’s] soap.

In all of these passages, where the KJV uses a possessive form of a noun with an apostrophe the Book of Mormon follows suit; not once does the Book of Mormon use a phrase with the word of instead. For example, it does not say for the sake of my name rather than for my name’s sake; it does not say the mountain of the house of the Lord rather than the mountain of the Lord’s house. In one instance the specific word is changed, but it is still in the same possessive form, though in the 1830 edition run together with the head noun as one word, namesake (3 Ne. 12:10). In later editions this word was changed to name’s sake. There are other minor changes (adding s to cockatrice’; changing fullers’ to fuller’s; spelling neighbor without the u), but these have nothing to do with the issue at hand. The point is that in passages quoting or paralleling the Bible, the Book of Mormon never has the so-called “construct state” construction in place of the English possessive forms using an apostrophe found in the KJV.

Thus, in all of the biblical passages quoted or paralleled in the Book of Mormon, this pattern holds: where the KJV uses an expression with of, so does the Book of Mormon; where the KJV uses a possessive form with an apostrophe, so does the Book of Mormon: 

  • The 10 occurrences of possessive forms with an apostrophe in Isaiah 2-14 KJV are all duplicated in 2 Nephi 12–24 in Book of Mormon, and those are the only possessives with an apostrophe in 2 Nephi 12–24.
  • Isaiah chapters 29, 48, and 50 in the KJV each have one possessive with an apostrophe (Isa. 29:16; 48:9; 50:1); the parallel passages in the Book of Mormon also have those same three possessives and no others (2 Ne. 27:27; 1 Ne. 20:9; 2 Ne. 7:1).
  • The three occurrences of the word neighbour’s in Exodus 20:17 KJV are the only such occurrences in Exodus 20:1-17, and they are also the only such occurrences in Mosiah 13.
  • The two possessive forms with an apostrophe in Malachi 3:2 are the only such forms in Malachi 3–4 KJV, and they are the only two in the quotation of Malachi 3–4 in 3 Nephi 24-25 (24:2).
  • There are five possessive forms with an apostrophe in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7 KJV, and 3 Nephi 12–14 has five possessive forms with an apostrophe—four that are the identical words and one that is a different word in the same place as in Matthew.

It is essentially impossible to explain this pattern except on the conclusion that the Book of Mormon quotations from the Old Testament, as well as the “Sermon at the Temple” in 3 Nephi 12–14, are dependent on the KJV.16

What makes these occurrences of possessive forms using an apostrophe even more telling is that elsewhere in the Book of Mormon similar expressions are constructed using the word of in the manner supposedly reflecting a Hebraic original. For example, the Book of Mormon says for the sake of our people (Jacob 1:4) instead of for our people’s sake (cf. 1 Ne. 20:9 = Isa. 48:9). The Book of Mormon uses the expression the throne of God three times (2 Ne. 28:23; Jacob 3:8; Mormon 3:10) but God’s throne only once, in a statement paralleling Matthew 5:34 (3 Ne. 12:34). It uses the expression of thy brother in a possessive sense after a noun four times (2 Ne. 3:25; Alma 22:3; 39:1; Ether 1:43) but thy brother’s only in the two places paralleling statements in Matthew (3 Ne. 14:3, 5 = Matt. 7:3, 5). The Book of Mormon uses the expression son of 81 times (not even counting the occurrences of the Son of God and the like), such as son of Alma, son of Helaman, son of Nephi, and so on; the only occurrences of a possessive form of a person’s name followed by son in the Book of Mormon are the two occurrences of the expression Remaliah’s son in the long quotation from Isaiah (2 Ne. 17:9; 18:6).

There are at least four other places in the Book of Mormon in which the use of a possessive form with an apostrophe is likely reflective of a text in the KJV, even though that text is not being overtly quoted (1 Ne. 10:8, cf. John 1:27; Mosiah 18:8, cf. Gal. 6:2; Alma 24:17, 18, cf. Gen. 19:6). The first of these merits a brief look: 

…and he is mightier than I,
whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose. (1 Ne. 10:8)
He it is, who coming after me is preferred before me,
whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose. (John 1:27 KJV)

1 Nephi 10:8 has the only occurrence of the word shoe’s in the Book of Mormon, and John 1:27 has the only occurrence in the KJV. This fact, along with its presence in a word string of nine words identical in both texts as well as other evidence in the context of 1 Nephi 10 of dependence on the Gospels’ accounts about John the Baptist, proves beyond reasonable doubt that this occurrence reflects dependence specifically on the KJV.

This leaves 58 occurrences of possessive forms with an apostrophe in the Book of Mormon that are not directly or clearly dependent on the KJV. This is still too many to be explained as scribal error, as explained earlier. On the other hand, it is a small enough number that it can plausibly be explained as inadvertent departures in dictation by Joseph Smith from his stylistic preference. The 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon (which did not have cross-references and the like at the bottom of each page as do more recent editions) had 584 pages of text; if we exclude the roughly 58 pages that are mainly quotations or lengthy parallels to the Bible we are left with about 526 pages. This means that on average there is one possessive form with an apostrophe for every nine pages (excluding those dependent on the KJV). If Joseph was dictating the non-biblical passages extemporaneously, deviations from his preferred style of that frequency is very plausible.

The average of one possessive form with an apostrophe every nine pages is just an average, since in fact these possessive forms are not distributed evenly in the Book of Mormon. Of these 58 possessives, 43 (about three-fourths) are found in the books of Mosiah, Alma, and Helaman (Mosiah 2:36; 6:4; 7:7; 9:1, 4; 13:5; 18:34; 20:17; 22:13; 23:3; 24:9; 26:31; Alma 4:13, 17; 8:6; 12:18; 18:3, 13; 21:1; 22:2, 20, 28, 32; 30:7, 11, 23; 38:4; 44:12; 45:15; 46:10; 47:8, 12, 13; 53:2; 59:1; 62:40; Hel. 4:7; 5:39; 6:18 [twice]; 12:5; 13:14, 17). These three books account for roughly the middle half of the Book of Mormon (actually somewhat more than half). In this part of the Book of Mormon the possessives occur on average about once every seven pages. There are only 8 occurrences in the first seven books (1 Nephi through Words of Mormon); if we exclude the pages that are dependent on the Bible, this works out to about one possessive every 13 pages (1 Ne. pref. [twice]; 3:16; 2 Ne. pref.; 5:16; 28:3 [twice]; Jacob 1:4). There are only 7 in the last five books (3 Nephi through Moroni); again excluding pages dependent on the Bible, this is about one possessive every 18 pages (3 Ne. 19:10; 27:8 [twice]; Mormon 1:5; 5:7 [twice]; Ether 10:5). The table below summarizes the data. 

Books 1 Nephi–Words Mosiah–Helaman 3 Nephi–Moroni
Pages (Excluding Biblical) 106 296 124
Possessives 8 43 7
Pages per Each Possessive 13 7 18

The obvious question is why possessives using an apostrophe would be twice as frequent in the first and last parts of the Book of Mormon as in the middle half. A traditional LDS view of the Book of Mormon would hypothesize that this marked difference reflects some stylistic difference among the different ancient Book of Mormon authors. The following table crunches the numbers to see if this explanation is plausible. Sections that quote or parallel the Bible at length (of about a chapter or longer) are omitted from this analysis. 

Author Books (Canonical Order) Pages (1830) Possessives (Apostrophe) 1 Per Pages
Nephi 1 Nephi 1–19, 22; 2 Nephi 1–6, 9–11, 25–26, 28–33 76 7 10.9
Jacob Jacob 20 1 20
8 authors Enos–Words of Mormon 10 0 ---
Mormon Mosiah–Helaman (excl. ~2 pages of OT) 296 43 6.9
Mormon 3 Nephi 1–11, 15–21, 23, 26–30; 4 Nephi–Mormon 7 68 6 11.3
Moroni Mormon 8–Moroni 10 56 1 56

The above table shows one serious problem for the hypothesis that the different frequencies in the use of possessive forms is a function of different authors: Mormon’s frequency of usage in 3 Nephi through Mormon 7 is about three-fifths what it is in Mosiah through Helaman. There is enough material in both parts to warrant regarding the statistical difference as significant. It does not appear likely that the different frequencies are related to the different ancient authors. 

The other hypothesis to be considered is that the different frequencies have something to do with changes taking place during Joseph Smith’s dictation of the Book of Mormon. It has been known for some time that Joseph Smith dictated the existing Book of Mormon beginning with Mosiah through to the end (Moroni), then dictated the first part from 1 Nephi through Words of Mormon.17 Might this order of dictation shed some light on the different frequencies of possessive forms? The following table presents the numbers according to this hypothesis to see how plausibly it accounts for the different frequencies. The Book of Mormon has been divided here into portions of roughly comparable length (from 45 to 66 pages). As with the previous table, sections that quote or parallel the Bible at length (of about a chapter or longer) are omitted from this analysis. 

Books (Dictation Order) Pages (1830) Possessives 1 Per Pages
Mosiah (excluding 2 pages of OT) 66 12 5.5
Alma 1–21 65 7 9.3
Alma 22–44 63 9 7.0
Alma 45–63 59 8 7.4
Helaman 45 7 6.4
3 Nephi 1–11, 15–21, 23, 26–30 55 3 18.3
4 Nephi–Moroni 10 66 4 16.5
1 Nephi 1–19, 22; 2 Nephi 1–6, 9–11 66 5 13.2
2 Nephi 25–26, 28–33; Jacob–Words 51 3 17

There is a rather strong correlation between the order of dictation of the Book of Mormon and the frequency of possessive forms using an apostrophe. Joseph began his dictation with the Book of Mosiah. For the first three books, he averaged one possessive form every 5 to 9 pages or so. Then, beginning with 3 Nephi, he averaged one possessive form every 13 to 18 pages or so.

What this shift in frequency of the use of possessive forms suggests is that somewhere around the time that Joseph began dictating 3 Nephi or soon thereafter, he started making a conscious effort to avoid possessive forms even more than he had up to that point. However, since he was dictating the non-biblical text more or less extemporaneously, he occasionally fell back into the use of the possessive form. This hypothesis appears to account for all of the evidence.

The shift in frequencies of the use of the possessive form is not the only evidence that Joseph’s dictation style changed as he went along. A similar shift took place in his dictation with regard to the expression land of promise and the more idiomatic English promised land. These expressions occur about the same number of times in the Book of Mormon (21 for the former and 22 for the latter), but they are not distributed evenly. Instead, as the table below summarizes, he preferred promised land from Mosiah 1 through the preface of 1 Nephi but preferred land of promise from 1 Nephi 1 through Words of Mormon. This shift—which takes place at a somewhat different point in the dictation of the manuscript than the shift in the use of possessive forms—is likely the result of an intentional effort by Joseph during the later stage of dictation to use the more “biblical sounding” expression.18 

  Mosiah—1 Nephi 1 1 Nephi 2—Words of Mormon
Promised land 13 8
Land of promise 4 18

We may now draw some conclusions about the possessive forms with apostrophe in the Book of Mormon. It is clear that they occur so few times as to call for an explanation for why they are not used more often. On the other hand, they occur so many times that they cannot be explained as scribal or printer’s errors. The best explanation is that Joseph generally intended to avoid these possessive forms in favor of more biblical or archaic sounding expressions using the word of, using them when they appeared in biblical passages he was quoting (from the KJV) and elsewhere only where it seemed necessary to him or by accident during his extemporaneous dictation. Two lines of evidence especially support this conclusion: (1) the consistent agreement with the KJV in the use of the possessive form in biblical quotations, and (2) the shift toward less use of possessive forms about halfway through the dictation process, suggesting that Joseph had become rather more deliberate though still not entirely successful in avoiding those forms.

Conclusion: No Evidence that the Book of Mormon Was Translated from a Hebraic Original

The Book of Mormon contains texts that were translated from Hebraic originals—the Old Testament passages that it quotes, in some places at great length. However, the numerous constructions using the word of, whether to express an adjectival sense or in place of the possessive form with an apostrophe, are not evidence that the Book of Mormon was itself translated from a Hebraic original. Rather, the evidence suggests that the Book of Mormon, where it is not directly dependent on the text of the KJV Bible, imitates the “biblical” style of the KJV in order to pass as another ancient Scripture comparable to the Bible.

Although it is in some ways a very well done imitation, there are tell-tale signs that the Book of Mormon is indeed an imitation. These include the use of expressions found in the New Testament but not in the Old (e.g., kingdom of God), the use of expressions in a way contrary to ancient idiom (e.g., temple of Solomon), the use of long word strings from the New Testament in the KJV (e.g., whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose, 1 Ne. 10:8, John 1:27), and other clear evidence of dependence on the KJV particularly in the use of possessive forms.

Finally, we showed that Joseph varied from his dominant style preference so often, especially with regard to the use of possessive forms, as to undermine the claim that the Book of Mormon is an inspired, revealed translation preserving the original Hebraic grammatical structure of the construct state. Rather, the evidence supports the conclusion that Joseph was deliberately mimicking the KJV style in this regard, that he did so imperfectly, and that changes in the frequencies of certain verbal constructions demonstrate that the variations came from Joseph and not from a supposed Hebraic original.

In short, a close, detailed analysis of this matter of the “construct state” in the Book of Mormon, far from supporting its claim to be an inspired translation of an ancient text, shows that it is an intelligent but uninspired modern composition. Its seeming “Hebraic” character is due to the fact that it is an impressive imitation. 


NOTES


1. John A. Tvedtnes, “Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon,” in Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics, edited by Geoffrey Khan (Leiden/Boston: Brill Online, 2016), 195-96.

2. Donald W. Parry, “Hebraisms and Other Ancient Peculiarities in the Book of Mormon,” in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, edited by Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch (Provo: FARMS, 2002), 176.

3. For standard academic, helpful treatments of the construct state, see Bruce K. Waltke and M. O’Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990), 136-60; Mark D. Futato, Beginning Biblical Hebrew ((Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2003), 68-80; Arthur W. Walker-Jones, Hebrew for Biblical Interpretation, Society of Biblical Literature Resources for Biblical Study 18 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), 75-83; Jo Ann Hackett, A Basic Introduction to Biblical Hebrew (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010), 49-55; Lily Kahn, The Routledge Introductory Course in Biblical Hebrew (London: Routledge, 2014), 117-25.

4. These categories and examples come from Waltke and O’Connor, Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, 143-54; I have simplified the descriptions and rendered the examples in a woodenly uniform (not “literal”) English way with explanations as needed.

5. Walker-Jones, Hebrew for Biblical Interpretation, 77.

6. The word of occurs 28,647 in the OT in the KJV (out of 622,771 words) and in the Book of Mormon some 11,799 times (out of about 268,700 words) (with slight variations of that number from one edition to another). Figures for the KJV are based on the 1769 Blayney edition as found in the electronic Bible study program BibleWorks 10.

7. Thomas W. Brookbank, “Hebrew Idioms and Analogies in the Book of Mormon, Part VII,” Improvement Era 17/11 (Sept. 1914): 1062 (1061-63).

8. In all but one instance (Dan. 9:17), in the KJV this form is Lord’s, with small capitalization to reflect the Hebrew name YHWH (Jehovah).

9. The line “blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke” (1 Ne. 22:18) exactly matches a line from Acts 2:19 KJV. The importance of the account of the church’s beginning at Pentecost in Acts 2, with Peter delivering the first Christian sermon (of which 2:19 is a part), virtually guarantees that Joseph Smith would have been familiar with it.

10. See further Robert M. Bowman Jr., “‘Land of Promise’ and Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon” (Institute for Religious Research, 2016).

11. For example, a Google search showed 473,000 hits for “Solomon’s temple” and 414,000 hits for “temple of Solomon” (the significance here is not the exact number but the fact that the two numbers are roughly comparable).

12. A Google search generated about 419,000 hits for “rod of iron” and about 546,000 for “iron rod.” The former expression appears predominantly in religious usage in dependence on the Bible (which includes its occurrence in the Book of Mormon). The latter expression usually occurs in secular contexts, but it also is prominent in LDS usage because of a Mormon hymn called “The Iron Rod.” In that instance the form was dictated by compositional constraints: the hymn-writer used that wording so that the last word of the line would rhyme with God!

13. See Robert M. Bowman Jr., “‘Temple of Solomon’: Two Problems for a Hebraic Book of Mormon” (Institute for Religious Research, 2016).

14. Neither the Book of Mormon nor the KJV Bible uses contractions (don’t, isn’t, can’t, and so on).

15. This figure refers to the current edition of the Book of Mormon; the 1830 edition has seven places where a word occurs that should have had an apostrophe but did not (i.e., a typographical mistake), 1 Ne. pref.; 1 Ne. 3:16; 20:9; Mosiah 13:5; 3 Ne. 12:10; Mormon 5:7 [twice].

16. This conclusion has a great deal of evidence for it other than the pattern of usage of the possessive forms; see Robert M. Bowman Jr., “The Sermon at the Temple in the Book of Mormon: A Critical Examination of Its Authenticity through a Comparison with the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew,” Ph.D. diss. (South African Theological Seminary, 2014).

17. For a brief explanation and references supporting this statement, see Robert M. Bowman Jr., “‘I’m Mormon’: How Book of Mormon Authors Name Themselves” (Institute for Religious Research, 2015). This view of the order of dictation is no longer in serious question among Book of Mormon researchers.

18. See Bowman, “‘Land of Promise’ and Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon” (cited earlier).